Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poverty's Daughter

There are no hidden ancestral ties to political figures. There are no kings and queens to be found on my family tree. I come mostly from hard working German stock, with a few wild Irish lads and lasses thrown in for good measure. A pinch of this, a pinch of that and there you have my family tree.

From my father’s paternal side, they came from Pennsylvania and Virginia to Ohio’s Appalachian hills. A few farmers, but mostly miners, these families settled in the coal producing area of Ohio in the mid 19th century.

A miner’s life was hard. They often lived in shanties and shacks provided by the mining company. They moved from time to time, following the work as it shifted from mine to mine, shaft to shaft. They started young, doing the most menial of work, and once the mines “got you”, it was hard to escape.

In the early days, furnaces were formed and stoked at the bottom of shafts creating the ventilation needed in the tunnels beneath the earth’s surface. Cave-ins, explosions, floods all posed great dangers to the men. The wages were low, their lungs scarred from breathing in the dust, yet the men continued working for as long as their bodies held out, to keep food in their family’s bellies and a roof over their children’s heads. The sons followed the fathers into the mines, and the circle of hard work for low wages continued for another generation.

This would have been my great great grandfather’s life. Except that he went to war and on a summer day in Georgia took a gunshot wound to the knee. The resulting amputation made finding work hard. Eventually, he would get a small disability check, but it was not enough money for the family to live on, so Henry found odd jobs when he could. His sons went to work in the mines, and his daughters looked for serving jobs to supplement the family income.

There are no pictures of Henry or his wife Louisa. Nor are there photos to be found for any of their children. Who were they after all? Certainly, they were not anyone whose likeness was worth recording. If there had been pictures, I wonder if I would have seen gaunt cheeks, hollowed eyes and a hopelessness reserved for those whom hope has abandoned.

Henry’s son Elmer, my great grandfather, was said to have been fond of the grape. This may or may not have been a fair assessment of the man, for it came from his wife’s stepmother, and was told to Elmer’s youngest daughter. After the death of his wife Lizzie, in 1911, Elmer found himself with four young children. He farmed out his eldest daughter, age six, to another family who used the girl as an unwilling servant.

His youngest daughter was left in the care of his father-in-law. He packed up his sons, ages one and three, and headed north. Between 1910 and 1920, oil had begun to replace coal as a heating element. The loss of jobs, even poorly paying ones, had forced many men to leave their Appalachian homes in search of new work.

So Elmer left, promising to return for his daughters sometime in the future. He headed for Lucas County, where an elder brother, Lawson, had found work earlier. We’ll probably never know what happened, but three years later Elmer was dead, in an apparent suicide. He had drunk carbolic acid. One cannot know what deep despair caused him to do this, but the result was two little boys and two little girls suddenly without any parent.

The youngest boy, George, stayed with his aunt and uncle, but the older boy, my grandfather would eventually be adopted out four years later. Grandfather would later manage to find a good job with Overland Express and was on his way to securing a good future for himself when he died unexpectedly at age 39 of a burst appendix.

He left seven fatherless children. But while my grandfather had not always made the best choices in life, he had certainly made two wise choices when he chose two strong, capable women to be the mothers of his children. These children would grow up not to perpetuate the poverty that had been their family’s heritage, but instead would form good, stable middle class homes from which they would raise their own children. It took several generations and a prescription of community aid, personal responsibility and education to change one family’s path out of poverty.

I wonder if Louisa and Henry would have ever dreamed that a great great granddaughter would find their lives important enough to write about and share with each of you. You can have your kings and queens, and your presidential ancestral ties. In my family, we have survivors, and there is a hard won dignity to be found in that.

Written for Blog Action Day 2008


Terry Thornton said...

Dear Ohio Terry,

What a beautiful and moving tribute to your family. Yes, your people are survivors --- and with dignity at that!

And to quote Faulkner, " . . .man will not merely endure: he will prevail. . . because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things."

I think you fulfill that duty often with your excellent writing. THANKS.

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi


Thanks my friend! I think Faulkner's "duty" is why there are so many wonderful geneabloggers writing so many beautiful posts. What a great time to be a family historian - with the availability of the Internet, we are able to tell the stories we feel need to be told.

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